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WFAE reporter David Boraks explores how the way we live influences climate change and its impact across the Carolinas. You also can read additional national and international climate news.

NC bill promotes nuclear power, extends legal coal ash deadlines

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission recently approved NuScale's design for the nation's first small modular nuclear reactor. Electricity companies, including Duke Energy, see the technology as a carbon-free alternative to fossil-powered plants.
Electricity companies including Duke Energy see small nuclear plants as a carbon-free alternative to fossil-powered plants. This NuScale design has won approval from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

This story appeared first in reporter David Boraks' weekly email newsletter. Sign up here to get the latest news straight to your inbox first.

Lawmakers in Raleigh are considering a bill that could make it easier to permit new nuclear plants and extend deadlines for Duke Energy to clean up coal ash dumps at its North Carolina plants.

Senate Bill 678 was introduced by Sen. Paul Newton, a Cabarrus County Republican and former Duke Energy executive. It would replace the term "renewable energy" in state statutes with "clean energy."

The bill also explicitly adds nuclear energy to the list of clean energy options as regulators decide what new electrical plants to approve.

Duke Energy supports the bill and has proposed replacing some North Carolina coal plants with a new generation of small nuclear reactors. Duke is also adding solar, wind and hydroelectric capacity as it tries to reduce fossil fuel use to meet the state's climate goals.

“We support modifying legislation to reflect nuclear’s critical importance as a carbon-free resource," Duke Energy spokesman Bill Norton said this week in an email.

The bill also increases a current cap on leased solar energy capacity on Duke's system, from 1% to 10%.

Meanwhile, the bill also would extend Duke's deadlines in state statute for removing coal ash from unlined pits at its North Carolina plants, to as late as 2038. It's mostly a technicality — bringing those deadlines in line with a 2020 settlement agreement between Duke and environmental groups. The state's 2014 Coal Ash Management Act had earlier deadlines.

Coal ash is the residue left after burning coal. It contains potentially toxic heavy metals.

State law and court orders already require Duke to close existing coal ash pits and move the coal ash to newly lined landfills. Some ash is being recycled at facilities like the one at the former Buck coal plant in Salisbury.

Duke Energy has excavated about one-third of the ash stored at plants across the state, according to an update on its website. All or most of the ash remains in current pits at the largest sites, including the Allen Steam Station in Gaston County and the Marshall Steam Station on Lake Norman.

Excavation has not begun yet at the Allen Plant on Lake Wylie, which has 19.8 million tons of ash. It has the latest deadline of all the sites — Dec. 31, 2038.

Meanwhile, the former Riverbend plant on Mountain Island Lake was demolished in 2019 and coal ash removal finished in 2019.

Removal has begun at the Marshall plant on Lake Norman, which has about 15.7 million tons of ash. It must be cleaned up by Dec. 31, 2036.

Frank Holleman of the Southern Environmental Law Center was among those pushing for coal ash removal over the past decade. He noted that Duke is already bound by the 2020 settlement to remove ash by the deadlines in the bill.

He said in an interview this week that the good news is that Duke has completed ash cleanups at the Riverbend, Wilmington, Asheville, and Dan River plants, and it's making progress on others. The Dan River plant was the site of a major coal ash spill in 2014 that prompted new rules and legal settlements and led to the requirement for Duke to clean up the sites.

"So every day that goes by North Carolina's communities and their rivers and their clean water are a little bit safer and a little bit less polluted than they would have been otherwise," Holleman said.

Newton's bill has passed the House and is awaiting action in the Senate Rules Committee.

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David Boraks is a veteran journalist who covers climate change for WFAE. See more at www.wfae.org/climate-news. He also has covered housing and homelessness, energy and the environment, transportation and business.